Who Will Provide? The Changing Role of Religion in American Social Welfare

By Mary Jo Bane; Brent Coffin et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Justice and Charity in
Social Welfare

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza

Throughout the history of Christianity, there are examples where the Christian churches express their concern about the poor and needy not simply by an appeal to voluntary charity but also by critique of imperial, municipal, and national state policy.

WHO CARES AND WHO PROVIDES are central questions concerning the nature and scope of social welfare. In seeking an answer, political and religious discourse in America today often sharply contrasts personal charity and societal justice, attributing a priority to the former over the latter. Advocates of charity praise its voluntary, personal, and religious nature in contrast to the involuntary, impersonal, and secular nature of justice. Moreover, they often presuppose a zero-sum game in which charity and welfare compete with one another, as if what is given in welfare detracts from what is given in charity or vice versa.

It is the merit of Theda Skocpol's essay in this volume to have demonstrated that several dichotomies, which are often assumed, are historically untrue. She illustrates that the usual contrasts between voluntary activity and governmental welfare, as well as between large and the small local groups, overlooks the varied and complex interconnections among them in the history of social provision in the United States. In addition, her essay highlights the varying understandings of social security, observing that while its critics see it as welfare, its recipients and defendents understand it not as welfare but as a just reward.

The distinction between charity and justice and the role it plays in discussions about social welfare is the subject of my chapter. I want to examine the contrast between justice and charity and the priority given to charity over justice by many critics of social welfare. To this end, I first examine the views of these critics, especially insofar as they entail a cultural and social critique of welfare. Since these criticisms elevate philanthropy over welfare and charity over justice, it is necessary to examine their cultural, philosophical, and religious presuppositions.

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